Interior of the Wal-Mart supercenter in Albany. Photograph by Matt Wade, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CCO 3.0.
The first and only time I went to the Walmart in Iowa City was surreal. When I was in high school, my parents’ business-oriented small press had published a book called The Case Against Walmart that called for a national consumer boycott of the company; the author denounced everything from the superstore’s destruction of environmentally protected lands to its sweatshop labor to its knockoff merchandise. So by the time I made a pilgrimage out to the superstore at age twenty-one, I hadn’t stepped in a Walmart for nearly a decade, and it had acquired this transgressive power—the very act of crossing the threshold was as shameful as it was thrilling. Immediately, I sensed the store’s anonymizing power: outside, I was nearby the Iowa Municipal Airport, en route to the Hy-Vee grocery store; inside, I was anywhere. I didn’t know what I expected, but it was wonderful, and terrible, and weird, and empty, but also full of stuff. In the real world, I was allergic to animals, but I found myself hypnotized in the pet aisle: snake food, dry cat food, wet cat food, Iams, I am what I am. Each shade of paint chip in the Benjamin Moore display bouquet was more erotic than the one before. Primrose Petals, I Love You Pink, Pretty Pink, Hot Lips. Everything was too bright, oversaturated, illuminated in fluorescent Super Soaker–level high beams. I wasn’t high; I didn’t need to be. I barely saw another human, but the accumulation of things constituted many lifetimes of living. I was in a mass graveyard—a place defined by, as Annie Ernaux puts it, “the dead silence of goods as far as the eye could see.”
From November 2012 to October 2013, in Look at the Lights, My Love—published in 2014 in France and in 2023 in an English translation by Alison L. Strayer—Ernaux recorded her visits to the Auchan superstore in suburban Cergy-Pontoise, an hour northwest of Paris. Like all of Annie Ernaux’s works, Look at the Lights plays a formal sleight-of-hand in the best way, with the feel of a dashed-off journal but the felt experience of a deeply philosophical meditation on the nature of shopping, voyeurism, late-stage capitalism, class, race, and desire.
The Auchan superstore, the locus of Ernaux’s book, is a nesting-doll “self-contained enclave” within Trois-Fontaines, a conglomeration of the city’s public and private institutions: post office, police station, theater, library, etc. Ernaux describes the apparently normal, bustling village of Trois-Fontaines as a trompe l’oeil town, a privately owned corporate center that shuts down at night. “There is a vertigo produced by symmetry,” Ernaux writes, “reinforced by the fact that the space is enclosed, though open to the daylight through a big glass canopy that replaces the roof.” I’m reminded of the indoor mall in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas—the Forum Shops—with its sky-painted ceiling reminiscent in zero ways of the Sistine Chapel. The roof cycles from light to darker blue in an accelerated yet elongated version of time: days are thirty minutes, but there are no weeks or years.
Trois-Fontaines touts itself as having every service that people need, and then many that people don’t. In addition to the flagship Auchan superstore, there are: salons, pharmacies, a daycare, cigarette vendors, wheelchairs on loan, free bathrooms. And yet, Trois-Fointaines has no life of the mind: the bookstore and café closed long ago. Though Trois-Fontaines has the appearance of a bustling small community by day, because it’s privately owned, the center’s sealed off after business hours: “when you walk by it late at night,” Ernaux observes, “after getting off the commuter train, its silent mass is more desolate than a cemetery.”
Look at the Lights doesn’t lay out a quasi-legal case against Auchan, nor is it a snarkily supercilious theoretical takedown of mall culture. Rather, Ernaux faces the harder emotional truth: you can hate everything the superstore stands for, and you can feel somewhere on the dull spectrum of bored to mildly uncomfortable when you enter, but ultimately, the superstore offers a real opportunity to feel the edges of your own anonymity, one you don’t get anywhere else. There is a certain vulnerability in admitting that you want to lose yourself and that you might find yourself among a collection of objects you didn’t realize you needed. There is an illicit pleasure in aimless browsing on this scale: like running, or swimming, or lying dead in corpse pose, there’s a relentless surrender to bodily experience. Caught in a list of endless stuff, you don’t have to choose, or think; you can just be.
Floating through the aisles in Iowa Walmart, I couldn’t stop listing things—camo baseball cap, Dustbuster, toilet brush—muttering a late-capitalist rosary: hail Big Mouth Billy Bass full of grace. Ernaux’s book’s eros lies in its lush lists, where we get to luxuriate in details. Yet Ernaux immediately recognizes the necessity of restraint in both recording and experiencing, so that you can enjoy without tipping into reckless abundance: at “an island of loose Italia grapes in bulk,” she notes, people eat only one or two, “with a sort of collective sense of permission whereby individuals limit themselves to a few grapes and are further kept in check by others’ eyes upon them.” Auchan is a tempered Eden. As in shopping, the book’s pleasures lie in visual observation, but even simple descriptions have a certain sharpness under the unending lights of her gaze. This is reality in high definition; everything has edges. Yet the superstore is this weird combination of a blur and hyperfocus. On a macro level, Ernaux floats through the space; she’s alone, and she’s observing people and objects as though suspended in jelly, accumulating objects for a future version of themselves that will never exist here. We’re always searching for the self we live outside the superstore.
There’s a great moment when another shopper asks, “Are you Annie Ernaux?” By this point, Ernaux has published nearly twenty books and is known as something of a public figure. “I can’t get used to the question,” Ernaux writes. “She is surprised to see me here. She hates Auchan and almost never comes here. I tell her that I come often and don’t mind it.” Perhaps the fan is trying to appear embarrassed to be caught in such a basic space, projecting that Ernaux would be above it; Ernaux reassures her that she comes often. But once she’s been outed as herself, she has to go down to the main floor “before I can recover my tranquility as an anonymous customer.”
The superstore, in its simultaneous blur and hyperfocus, allows Ernaux to both see social ills in vivid detail and turn them into a strange subcutaneous layer removed from reality. Ernaux is making a kind of catalog, but this is not as simple as it seems. She wonders whether to describe someone as “a Black woman” or “an African woman” or simply “a woman,” though she knows, per Toni Morrison, that to erase defining features will implicitly “whiten” the woman, to “textually deny her visibility.” Ernaux doesn’t address, here, the act of gendering in this description—should she write female presenting? Stick with person, which might immediately imply male? Or would person in a shopping context suggest female, in which case, it would be more crucial to mark a figure as explicitly male?
And as Ernaux continues to return to the store, and inventory not just its stuff but its people, she notices the deeply ingrained segregation, even in this supposedly egalitarian space. “There are people, entire segments of the clientele, who will never meet,” she writes. “Over the past fifteen years, it has not been the presence of ‘visible minorities’ that I notice in a given place but their absence.” That disjunct extends to the store’s workers: “We get told off more and more, it’s getting worse and worse,” a cashier tells Ernaux. “In the language of mass distribution,” Ernaux notes, “the ‘prod’ of the cashier is the number of items scanned per minute. Three thousand per hour is considered a good number.” The cashiers have no autonomy. The superstore sells the dream that we are all the same, and yet, its very stratification on all levels highlights how much we pull ourselves apart.
Even as people shop more than ever, tides have culturally shifted away from brick-and-mortar monoliths. Malls and superstores are bleeding out; Bed Bath & Beyond is the latest to join the great Bankrupt Beyond. Arguably, this is not a tragedy. And yet, there’s still something in the superstore’s emptiness that is unlike any other kind of space; it’s deeply problematically selling everything, and it reifies hierarchies, but it’s also weirdly equalizing, its flatness and singularity of purpose. “Upon leaving the superstore,” Ernaux writes, “I was often overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness and injustice. But for all that, I have not ceased to feel the appeal of the place and the community life, subtle and specific, that exists there.”
The holidays exemplify that promise and mirage of this place. December is the superstore’s time to quite literally shine: “On the inclined moving walkway,” Ernaux writes, “under the glass roof, we ascend toward the lights and garlands hanging down like necklaces of precious stones. The young woman in front of me with a little girl in a stroller looks up and smiles. She leans down toward the child. ‘Look at the lights, my love!’” But when you exit the store, you revert back to the world outside the self-contained universe, the world beyond couture and counters and contours—if you escape the store at all.
Look at the Lights was written pre-pandemic. By the start of 2021, many long dormant shopping centers had been transformed into vaccination sites. But even as this development felt in some ways like the dystopian end of the superstore era, it also seemed appropriate that the mall become a site of hope, a magical jolt that could transform us into the next phase of our lives. Abandoned mannequins with exquisitely sculpted torsos and no faces watched us get our arms jabbed, in the hope of shopping for something other than our current lives.
So Look at the Lights, My Love illuminates both the magic and the hellscape of the superstore. This is a space divorced from nature, its own ecosystem and echo chamber of horrors, where night is day and day is day. Ernaux’s diaries document her entrances and exits from the store, and the writing reveals that she’s stuck there for whole days: if she’s charting who’s in the store from 8:30 A.M. to 10 P.M., she’s been there before sunrise, beyond sunset.
Adrienne Raphel is the author of Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them. Her latest collection of poetry, Our Dark Academia, was published by Rescue Press.
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